By Lawrence Frascella
Updated December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

The promise of getting a flesh-and-blood peek at Paul Newman, one of the last surviving icons of his movie era, has powered this revival of what some might consider a theatrical warhorse — Our Town — and driven it all the way back to Broadway. Although this is about the most conservative, straightforward production you can imagine, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play proves to be a durable, mesmerizing, indeed seminal work — and the same can be said about Newman himself.

In his first Broadway appearance in nearly 40 years, Newman takes on the famous role of Stage Manager — the wry, dry, vaguely disapproving narrator who conducts Wilder’s largely plotless, early- 20th-century tour of Grover’s Corners, N.H. In person, the 77-year-old Newman remains commanding and sexy, despite a definite frailty — slight frame, glasses, snow-white hair. He still projects a thoroughly American, Hud-like brand of cool detachment, which is perfect for his dispassionate character. And whatever he lacks in vocal strength these days, he more than makes up for in charisma (of course) and arrow-sharp, punctuated gestures.

Still, as the play proceeds, it proves to be such an overwhelmingly emotional piece that even Newman’s quietly striking presence is subsumed into it. Our Town begins as a sometimes loving, sometimes acrid look at small-town life circa 1900, but it’s more than a mere time capsule. Granted, much of Act 1 relies on the nostalgic charms of Wilder’s American archetypes: the innocent ingenue (Maggie Lacey), the bitter church organist (a hilariously bitchy Stephen Spinella), the caustic housewife (Jane Curtin, easily traversing the chasm between theater and TV).

But at the end of the first act, we get a major clue to Wilder’s deeper — and once revolutionary — intentions when someone receives a letter addressed to Grover’s Corners, the United States of America, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God. During Act 2 — which jumps three years, then nine more — Grover’s Corners turns out to be just one point on the planet, the focal point for Wilder’s concerns about mortality. Characters pass away and address us from the grave, but never in mystically sentimental John Edward-ish platitudes. Instead, they make a giant, astringent, emotionally convulsive statement about the preciousness and fragility of life, whenever and wherever it occurs. Director James Naughton makes little attempt to update or meta-size this material. The play is handled as it’s traditionally been, with abject sincerity and minimal staging. And that proves to be a good call. Left to their own devices, these characters speak directly to us. Heck, somehow — mysteriously — they become us.